The World Photography Awards removed Hong Kong protest shots for being politically sensitive

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Image: Reuters//Navesh Chitrakar
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The photos depicted scenes and characters from Hong Kong’s protests: riot police making arrests, a fiery barricade, portraits of masked protesters. They had been submitted by three photographers to the prestigious 2020 Sony World Photography Awards, and had been shortlisted as finalists. Then, earlier this week, the photos disappeared from the contest’s website.

Several days later, on Feb. 20, the entries reappeared on the contest website—but with some photos removed.

The incident is the latest instance of businesses being pressured to suppress content related to the Hong Kong protests, for fear of harming financial interests in the Chinese market. When NBA team Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protests in October, he was quickly pressured to delete the tweet, with the NBA issuing an apology to Chinese fans. US gaming company Blizzard Entertainment also issued a temporary ban against a Hong Kong player from its competition for having shouted a slogan in support of the city’s protesters in a post-game interview.

In the case of the photography competition, two of the entries, by photographers David Butow and Hong Kong-based Ko Chung-ming, had earlier been removed altogether, with links to the works on the contest website returning a 404 error. Butow’s entry, Battleground Hong Kong, was a photo essay of 10 black-and-white images showing scenes from the protests’ frontlines. Ko’s entry, Wounds of Hong Kong, consisted of 10 portraits of protesters with injuries and scars sustained from the protests. Both entries were put back up online, but Butow’s had been cut to five photos and Ko’s to four.

Butow, who is based in the US, eventually decided to retract his entry because the truncated form was inconsistent with how he wanted to display his work, he said. Another entry, titled Hong Kong Protestors by Australian photographer Adam Ferguson, was put under restricted access. When reached by Quartz last week for comment, Ferguson said he had not been notified that his entry had been made inaccessible, adding that it was “crazy but not surprising.” His entry is now readily accessible to everyone in its original form.

When Butow asked the award’s organizer, the World Photography Organization—which has offices in Shanghai, London, and San Francisco—why his photos were no longer available, he was told that concerns had been raised about his entry. “It was something like it was politically sensitive… there were concerns about the political nature of the work,” he said, recounting his conversation with the contest organizer. Ko got a similar response. The organizers flagged the “sensitive nature” of some images and told him his entry was under review, according to a Facebook post by Ko (link in Chinese).

The contest organizer’s decision to effectively censor his work surprised him, said Butow.  Before submitting his work to this year’s awards, he had looked at last year’s finalists’ entries. One was by the photographer Mustafa Hassona, whose third-place entry showed Palestinian protesters in Gaza.

It was “political, highly charged, and depicted scenes of violence and injury,” Butow said of Hassona’s photos. Seeing that the World Photography Awards had shortlisted Hassona’s entry and displayed it on its website showed that ”they are not shying away from work that’s quite political and that shows conflict, which is what the Hong Kong work shows,” he said. 

While the organizer didn’t fully explain to Butow the decision-making process behind removing five of his ten photos, he said he was told that some of his images were “politically sensitive for certain markets, certain viewers.”

The World Photography Awards, considered one of the preeminent competitions in the photography world, were first hosted in 2008, and Sony has been a sponsor from the start. China makes up 13% of Sony’s total sales, according to the latest available company filings. Last year, German camera maker Leica—for whom China is the biggest growth market—found itself censored on Chinese social media after the company released an advert featuring Tiananmen Square. Leica subsequently distanced itself from the advert, saying it wasn’t “officially sanctioned.”

In response to a Quartz inquiry, the World Photography Organization said that it’s not unprecedented for concerns to be raised over shortlisted images. “If a series is deemed to breach the competition terms we will endeavor to curate it so that the entered images can comply,” the organization said, without elaborating on who raised the concerns regarding the Hong Kong protest images, and what competitions terms they breached to warrant their deletion.